Well...here we go. We have three ultra-crucial games taking place tonight: Houston at Dallas, New Orleans at San Antonio, Denver at Portland. Every single one of those teams has something to win and something to lose. What a night.
If you have not checked out the rundown of possibilities below, go ahead and do so. We've given you both the outcomes and the explanation for why it happens that way. There's still some confusion out there. Multiple sources are still listing incorrect information. The explanation below agrees 100% with the chart the Blazers have made public and is also completely congruent with the information the league has sent out.
On to the Portland-Denver contest...
A Look at the Nuggets
Any way you slice it, this is a nasty matchup for the Blazers. The Nuggets feature a strong, athletic frontcourt duo in Kenyon Martin and Nene Hilario. Nene's explosiveness has repeatedly befuddled the Blazers' vaunted center corps this year. Martin has a nasty streak and tends to push around Portland's forwards. Neither is dominant talent-wise. They just resonate on a frequency that threatens to shatter the Blazers' normal big-man advantage.
Then you turn to Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony. Billups can drive, hit the long ball, and pull up or pass in the mid-range. He's a complete offensive threat at a position the Blazers have until recently had trouble containing. Carmelo scores 23 a game and pasted 38 on the Blazers the last time these two teams met. He's not been Denver's first line of attack against Portland this year. Rather other players have broken us down leaving 'Melo to come in and destroy our already-weakened frame.
After that you start talking about J.R. Smith, a physical marvel at off-guard who just this year has finally put together a credible inside-outside combo game. Linas Kleiza rebounds and stretches the floor with his shooting at the forward positions. Chris "Birdman" Andersen provides rebounding and shot blocking off the bench while veteran point guard Anthony Carter has been averaging near-starter-level assists in about 20 minutes per game off the bench lately. The Nuggets can run 9 or 10 guys at you and all of them can play.
Denver is dangerous in a bunch of different ways. They're fourth in the league in both points in the paint and fast break points. They're 5th in field goal percentage, 5th in assists, and 1st in both free throws attempted and free throws made. They average 6 more charity tosses than their opponents which is a huge margin. Their physical power and aggressiveness pay dividends.
Defensively Denver relies on the big play. They block shots and create turnovers. They are 8th in the league in defensive efficiency.
For all that, the Nuggets don't rebound that well on either end of the court.
Denver is far more of an opportunistic team than a fundamental one, though that has changed somewhat since Billups has come on board. Still, they're far more likely to overwhelm you than out-execute you. Denver only loses to winning teams that can withstand their rush. Four out of five losses for them have been to playoff or above-.500 teams.
Keys to the Game
1. This is a game of tempo. The Nuggets want the contest loose and fast. The Blazers want controlled aggression. The biggest key to tempo is almost always controlling the boards. The Blazers want every rebound on either end. They want the Nuggets to have to wait until they're granted the ball instead of seizing it themselves. No rebounds for Denver equals no control or speed equals no bullying rush.
2. It's no accident that the Blazers' lone win so far against the Nuggets this year came on a night when both Joel Przybilla and LaMarcus Aldridge were dominant. The Nuggets have broken down our big men and then slaughtered us from the wins when our big guys were occupied. People 6'10" and over have to stand their ground tonight and maybe deal some damage back. Denver's smaller scorers aren't as effective when looked dead in the eye.
3. The Blazers take away one of Denver's preferred advantages by limiting turnovers. This is a Portland strength that should be husbanded tonight.
4. Physicality has to be met with physicality. The Nuggets play us stronger than almost any other opponent. We have to show we're men out there on offense, defense, the glass, and the way we approach contact. One big indicator will be foul shots. If we can stay even with Denver we have a good chance at this game.
5. Remember what this is about. This is homecourt in the first round. This is the end of a long journey where you've fought every step of the way. The Blazers have given their hearts, souls, and bodies to get into this position. They shouldn't let anyone take it from them.
It's hard to believe we've come to the end of the regular season already. Winning has made this year go quickly. It's fantastic that this may turn out to be the most important game of all.
Among other things this is also a springboard into the playoffs. Finishing the year winning six straight would give Portland excellent momentum going into the post-season.
Once more...for the win.
Check out the Nuggets perspective at PickAxeandRoll.
Jersey Contest Playoff participants don't forget that this is the last game before the final cut-down.
For the rest of you, predict tonight's margin of victory (or defeat) for the Blazers in the comment section of this post. The first correct prediction will get a hand-drawn caricature of a Blazer player.
In addition to local TV, this is also the late game on ESPN tonight. It begins at 7:30 local time.